People camp out over night and line the streets cheering and waving and holding signs. The roads are mostly empty in a city with a population of over 10 million. Is there a head of state visiting? Is there a celebrity or national hero parading through the streets? Did the national team win the gold in the Olympics? No, this is the scene every year for the Suneung.
The Suneung is the Korean high school standardized test (College Scholastic Ability Test) taken every year by high school seniors in the hopes of getting into a good college. This is not just a high-stakes test like the US SAT, this is the high-stakes test. There are very few people outside of Korea that can understand how high-stakes it is. The government orders businesses to open later to clear the streets for students getting to the testing center. Air traffic is rerouted to make sure students are not distracted by the noise, and during the English listening section they even ground planes altogether. Police escort students running late and crowds of people line the streets near the testing centers (usually high schools) with signs of encouragement. Parents pray and fellow students camp out to get a good view to cheer on their upper-classmates (Hu, 2015).
I have been working in South Korea for seven years at three different schools, and we have always taken the day off for the Suneung. I have never taught at a high school, but my schools have still taken the day off to make sure there are no distractions. My current school (an elementary school) sits across a soccer field from a girls' high school and that is too close, so we close down during big tests happening at the high school. So, what is the big deal about this test and how is it so much more high-stakes than the SAT?
In South Korea there are a handful of conglomerate companies that run the economy. They are called the Chaebol and include well-known companies like LG, Samsung, and Hyundai. These companies control most of the economy and are the most prestigious places to work at for Koreans. Every parent wants their children to get a good job, and that job is most likely at a Chaebol company. Because the competition is fierce for these jobs, every little bit of difference counts for prospective employees. One of the best ways to get noticed is to go to one of the top universities in the country - Seoul National University, Korea University, KAIST, or Yonsei. In order to get into one of these universities you need to score in the top percentile on the Suneung. Now we are back at the test. This is a make or break test for many students. It can be taken again if you do not like your score, but it only happens once a year, so you would have to wait another year, sometimes repeating your senior year in high school to do so (Hu, 2015).
In America, students have options. I remember choosing between the ACT or SAT in order to have a test score for college. I also remember not worrying too much about it because that wasn't the only thing that colleges looked at and there was always the route of community college transfer as a back-up option. It did not boil down to one day, one test, one moment in my life. It was always impressive to hear of someone getting a perfect 1600 on the SAT, but it never felt like that was the only way to succeed in life or get into college. Why am I reminiscing and talking about how the SAT felt? Because I am about to get into the dark side of the Suneung. South Korean youth are the least happy in the OECD and the number one reason is academic stress (Diamond, 2016). Though it is not mentioned in the report, it is not hard to infer that the main reason for that academic stress is linked, at least latently, to the Suneung. Students in South Korea go to school early in the morning and stay late into the night for years preparing for this eight-hour long test that can make or break their lives. Get a good score and you go to a good university, get a good job, and even marry well. Get a bad score, and possibly disappoint your family and ruin your life. It is so serious that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world for teenagers. From 2001 to 2011, the OECD average suicide rate for youth (10-24 years old) dropped 18%, but in South Korea, it increased 47% over the same time period (Corks, 2013). Unlike adult suicides, "teenage suicides [...] were more likely related to concerns about grades or school admission (39.2%), following the same report" (Corks, 2013). Korea consistently scores near the top of the PISA international assessments but is it worth it?
Click the link below and watch the video at the top for more details on the issue.
Clearly this test is the main focus in the Korean high school. This means that teaching to the test is the most common form of teaching strategy implemented here. This is not a beneficial strategy to mastery or authentic uses of the knowledge. It is not a way to get to know the students or offer them an outlet for their creativity or personality. According to one commenter “In my three years of high school, not once did any teacher ask me what I would like to do or what I would like to study in college. No one really cared about my interest or what I’d be better at” (as cited by Diamond, 2016). Even teachers complain about teaching to the test and not really getting to know the students well enough.
Although the SAT is a high-stakes test, many colleges are moving away from using the SAT or ACT for admissions (Jackson, 2015). So, not only do American high-school students have an option of test (both of which are half as long to take and offered more often), but even that is being reduced in its importance for admission.
You might be thinking that perhaps there is a difference in difficulty. Perhaps, the SAT and ACT are harder. The video below is a humorous look at the difficulty of the Suneung English section, but keep in mind how serious this test is for the students and their families as you watch.
My school is far removed from the high school scene here in Korea. However, even we are taking pains to reduce the stress on our students, knowing full well their future. We are reducing our high-stakes testing by reducing the weight of the grade of the semester quiz and final quiz. We have also added in more formative assessments and smaller weighted summative quizzes to off-set the importance of the bigger ones. We have also moved to use more projects and authentic assessments in order to better get to know our students and their abilities. The Suneung still lingers. It is on the tips of the tongues of the parents when they ask about our testing schedule and what tests their children will be taking. It is on the backs of their minds when they talk about getting their sixth graders ready to take the middle school entrance exams. There is no stopping the Suneung in the foreseeable future, but what we can do is try and delay the stress as long as they are in our school as best as we can.
Corks, D. (2013). Suicide rate among teenagers has increased 74.9% in the last decade; 2nd highest increase in the OECD. Human Rights Monitor South Korea. Retrieved from http://www.humanrightskorea.org/2013/suicide-rate-among-teenagers-has-increased-74-9-in-the-last-decade-2nd-highest-increase-in-the-oecd/
Diamond, A. (2016). South Korea's Testing Fixation. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/south-korean-seniors-have-been-preparing-for-today-since-kindergarten/508031/
Hu, E. (2015). Even the Planes Stop Flying for Korea's National Exam Day. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/11/12/455708201/even-the-planes-stop-flying-for-south-koreas-national-exam-day
Jackson, A. (2015). Top-notch colleges in the US are dropping a major admissions requirement. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/colleges-are-dropping-the-sat-2015-7